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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Family anchored by good deeds

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

You wouldn't guess that a gruff guy who plays "Hardball" harbors such a soft spot.

But NBC talk-show host Chris Matthews and his wife of three decades, Kathleen, who has earned recognition in her own right as a Washington television anchor, are pushovers for philanthropy.

The celebrity media couple are easily recognizable around Washington, but behind the scenes, they quietly donate their names, money and time, sometimes working with their three adult children, for humanitarian causes.

The Volunteers of America recently honored Chris and Kathleen Matthews with the Ballington and Maud Booth Award for "their generous philanthropic work benefiting their community and the nation in their public and private lives."

However, the couple's recognition as "tireless fundraisers" was given not only because of what they have accomplished together and individually to help the less fortunate through their charitable efforts, but also because they have instilled the importance of community service in their three children and "passed on a great tradition," said Charles W. Gould, national president and chief executive officer of VOA.

"They have such a strong record [of service to the community] that it wasn't a particular one thing" that singled out the Matthewses, Mr. Gould said. Rather, "they have shown long-term commitment" and "they ensured that their children were involved."

Mrs. Matthews said getting the VOA award was nice but humbling because "so many people do much more."

When it comes to charity and community service, for the Matthewses, it's a family affair.

They are part of "a giving chain that happens in families," Mrs. Matthews said during an interview.

"With Chris, mentoring is a priority," she said.

Indeed, Mr. Matthews is frequently spotted around the NBC studios in Northwest with a pack of interns in tow, debating the hot topics of the day. "He gives them a lot of projects," Mrs. Matthews said. He also is known to take time to talk to aspiring journalism students who call and ask for guidance.

Mr. Matthews often donates his master-of-ceremonies fees for charity events to the hosting charity, including those working to prevent diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. He has the former; his mother had the latter, Mrs. Matthews said.

"He uses his platform on TV to help groups," she said.

Mrs. Matthews, who was a reporter and anchor for the local ABC affiliate, WJLA-TV (Channel 7), is executive vice president for global communications and public affairs for Marriott International Inc.

The Catholic Charities Foundation, the Girl Scouts and the Nyumbani orphanage in Kenya are Mrs. Matthews' fundraising priorities, though she juggles a number of other charity board duties, including with Ford's Theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

As for their children, Michael, 26, volunteered with the Clinton Foundation Global HIV/AIDS Initiative in Rwanda; Thomas, 22, an aspiring actor, volunteered with Imagination Stage, an acting workshop for people with disabilities; and Caroline, 20, has volunteered at the Nyumbani Village, established as a self-sustaining community for children and the elderly left without caregivers because of HIV/AIDS. She started raising funds for Maasai women by selling their beads while still a high school student at Georgetown Day School and now works with HIV/AIDS prevention programs in the District.

"I think Chris has been totally humbled and impressed with what our kids have done and how they've migrated to [community service]," Mrs. Matthews said.

Helping the Nyumbani Children's Home "is a family passion," Mrs. Matthews said. By the way, Mr. Matthews was a trade-development adviser for the U.S. Peace Corps in the Swaziland early in his career.

"Both of us would bring home stories of how many people we met who were disadvantaged by the circumstances of life, and [the children] got to see how lucky they were," she said. The sorrowful stories, apparently, still "grab at our kids."

They may have gotten "inspiration from news stories and the kinds of people we covered," said Mrs. Matthews, who took her children on weekend assignments when she was a reporter. "So, they got to see all of Washington."

The Ballington and Maud Booth Award, named for the founders of the 113-year-old VOA, is presented annually to an individual or couple for "distinguished service to humanity" and for executing the founders' vision "to go wherever we are needed and do whatever comes to hand."

Previous winners include former first lady Nancy Reagan, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and retired baseball player Cal Ripken Jr.

In addition to the Matthewses, the VOA also awarded Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, with the Good Samaritan Award in Philanthropy and the Chronicle of Philanthropy with the Empathy Award.

The 2009 awards were presented at the VOA gala held June 5 at the Library of Congress as part of the organization's national conference, themed "Moving Forward in Faith and Service." The conference was attended by more than 350 leaders and care providers from across the country.

Through hundreds of service programs, the VOA estimates that it "helps more than 2 million people in over 400 communities" throughout the U.S.

Mrs. Matthews said, "We're lucky to have jobs and platforms to do [this] kind of service," but she encourages others to "do what you can within the confines of your life and the level it works for you."

Mr. Gould said the busy Matthews clan, with their family tradition of giving, demonstrates that any individual can get involved and make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people.

"There isn't supposed to be somebody else who is to do this tough work," he said. "We hope [the Matthews] call attention to values we should have in a caring society that has compassion for one another."